Net neutrality advocates delivered 100,000 letters to the FCC from internet users urging the commission to clamp down on Verizon (NYSE: VZ), AT&T (NYSE: T), T-Mobile and Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) for offering zero-rated data services.
The Center for Media Justice, Fight for the Future and Free Press were among the groups protesting offerings such as T-Mobile's Binge On and Verizon's FreeBee Data. Binge On allows users to stream video from dozens of content providers without incurring data charges, while FreeBee enables content providers or others to pay the cost of data on behalf of customers, essentially providing "toll-free" content and services.
AT&T also continues to experiment with sponsored data services similar to FreeBee and is expected to make a major push in that direction later this year with the launch of a DirecTV-branded mobile video offering. Wells Fargo Securities said in February that AT&T is building a mobile advertising business alongside the video offering it's developing.
As for the FCC, Chairman Tom Wheeler said today he is still evaluating the practice. According to Multichannel News, Wheeler during a press conference said zero-rating plans are not covered in the agency's net neutrality guidelines because the issue is not a "one-size-fits-all situation." He added the FCC continues to collect information on zero-rated services.
Net neutrality advocates say zero-rated data services unfairly give an edge to content providers who can afford to pay the freight of delivering their content to mobile users, or who can make their content technologically compliant. Binge On is open to any video provider, for instance, but partners must meet technical specifications that allow the carrier to identify the content as part of the program in order to exempt it from data charges.
Barbara van Schewick, a Stanford law professor and net neutrality expert, filed a report earlier this year with the FCC claiming Binge On "harms competition, innovation and free speech." The program likely violates the FCC's net neutrality rules, she argued, because its technical requirements "categorically exclude" some content providers.
T-Mobile has argued that Binge On "is about customer choices – not limitations," noting the program's popularity. Company executives have said repeatedly that users on qualifying data plans watch more than twice as much video than they did before it launched.
Today's demonstration was an effort to prompt the FCC to enforce net neutrality rules that were upheld earlier this month by a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. Several companies and industry organizations are expected to appeal that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court; they are also urging federal legislators to decide the matter.
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